Why Osborne's new lending scheme won't work

If consumers are determined to hoard cash, who will borrow?

The likelihood is that George Osborne's new bank lending scheme, announced last night in his Mansion House speech, will neither revive the economy nor the Tories' moribund poll ratings (they currently trail Labour by 12 points).

Osborne has always said that he and David Cameron are "fiscal conservatives but monetary activists" and more monetary activism is what we're getting. Under a new "funding for lending" scheme, worth up to £80bn, the Bank of England will provide cheap loans to banks for several years, at below market rates, in exchange for them lending the money to households and small and medium-sized businesses. In addition, the snappily-titled Extended Collateral Term Repo Facility will lend banks a minimum of £5bn a month in the form of six month loans to them. The aim of both schemes is to stimulate the economy by increasing loans to credit-starved businesses and households. But will they work? Almost certainly not.

There is increasing evidence that the UK is caught in a liquidity trap, a situation in which confidence is so low that looser monetary policy (e.g. increasing the money supply or lowering interest rates) has no positive effect on the economy. If consumers and businesses are determined to hoard cash (as is common in a recession), then the new loans will not be taken up. As for those willing to borrow, many are so indebted that the banks won't lend to them anyway. Put simply, the creditworthy won't take loans and the uncreditworthy won't get them.

It is in such circumstances that the government must act as a spender of last resort and engage in fiscal stimulus (higher spending and lower taxes), as Ed Balls has repeatedly argued. Since Osborne is so fond of boasting of the UK's historically low bond yields (although they owe more to the Bank of England's quantitative easing programme than to his deficit reduction programme), the least he could do is take advantage of them. He should increase borrowing to fund higher infrastructure spending (the most effective stimulus, according to the Office for Budget Responsibility) and tax cuts.

As for the politics, they're not great for Osborne either. As Tory MP Douglas Carswell, an increasingly vociferous critic of the Chancellor, noted on Twitter: "Print-money-and-give-to-banks (govt) V Print-money-and-give-ppl (Balls). Guess which will play better in studio debates?"

In a recent essay in the New York Review of Books, Paul Krugman sagely observed that "the economic strategy that works best politically isn’t the strategy that finds approval with focus groups, let alone with the editorial page of The Washington Post; it’s the strategy that actually delivers results." If Osborne wants to restore his political reputation (he is both Chancellor and the Tories' chief election strategist) and give the Tories a faint hope of forming another government, he should adopt a plan that works. But first he must learn the lesson of the 1930s - you can't cut your way out of a recession, but you can spend your way out of one. And in these depressed times, only big government has the firepower to do so. 

Chancellor George Osborne delivered his annual Mansion House address last night. Photograph: Getty Images.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

Photo: Getty
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Theresa May is paying the price for mismanaging Boris Johnson

The Foreign Secretary's bruised ego may end up destroying Theresa May. 

And to think that Theresa May scheduled her big speech for this Friday to make sure that Conservative party conference wouldn’t be dominated by the matter of Brexit. Now, thanks to Boris Johnson, it won’t just be her conference, but Labour’s, which is overshadowed by Brexit in general and Tory in-fighting in particular. (One imagines that the Labour leadership will find a way to cope somehow.)

May is paying the price for mismanaging Johnson during her period of political hegemony after she became leader. After he was betrayed by Michael Gove and lacking any particular faction in the parliamentary party, she brought him back from the brink of political death by making him Foreign Secretary, but also used her strength and his weakness to shrink his empire.

The Foreign Office had its responsibility for negotiating Brexit hived off to the newly-created Department for Exiting the European Union (Dexeu) and for navigating post-Brexit trade deals to the Department of International Trade. Johnson was given control of one of the great offices of state, but with no responsibility at all for the greatest foreign policy challenge since the Second World War.

Adding to his discomfort, the new Foreign Secretary was regularly the subject of jokes from the Prime Minister and cabinet colleagues. May likened him to a dog that had to be put down. Philip Hammond quipped about him during his joke-fuelled 2017 Budget. All of which gave Johnson’s allies the impression that Johnson-hunting was a licensed sport as far as Downing Street was concerned. He was then shut out of the election campaign and has continued to be a marginalised figure even as the disappointing election result forced May to involve the wider cabinet in policymaking.

His sense of exclusion from the discussions around May’s Florence speech only added to his sense of isolation. May forgot that if you aren’t going to kill, don’t wound: now, thanks to her lost majority, she can’t afford to put any of the Brexiteers out in the cold, and Johnson is once again where he wants to be: centre-stage. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics.